We Should Be Worried About 'Peeple,' The App That Lets You Review Other Humans

Here's another rating app that treats people like objects. This is going to be messy.

Here we go again. Someone is making an app that's "like Yelp, for people."

The new service, called Peeple, wants adults to rate and review the folks they know, the way one would evaluate restaurants online. The service resembles other controversial rating apps that have launched over the last few years and, just like before, people are not happy about it.

Set to be released in November, Peeple encourages users to write comments about friends, coworkers or individuals they've dated -- and rate them from one to five stars. To sign up, reviewers must be 21 years old, have a working cell phone and a Facebook account that's been active for more than six months. They must also leave reviews under their real name.

Once a review is submitted, the person being critiqued will receive a text. The reviewer and reviewee then have 48 hours to try and work out their differences before the post appears on the site, but "[i]f you can’t work it out with the person you can publicly defend yourself by commenting on the negative review," the app's creators write.

When a reviewer wants to write about someone who's not in the app's database, all they need to do is submit the person's phone number. If that person doesn't verify a profile that's been set up in his or her name, negative reviews can't be posted there, per Peeple’s current rules. Once a profile is claimed, however, you can't opt out of being reviewed, delete yourself from the site or remove bad reviews.

Reviews will remain up on the site for an entire year, at which point they'll expire. While Peeple's terms of service bans a laundry list of abusive behaviors, it doesn't seem likely that the app's team will be able to police every problematic post while it's still up -- unless the founders and their funders have huge resources for content moderation, that is.

As news of Peeple spreads, it's generating a massive backlash online that has knocked its website offline, flooded its Facebook page with critical comments and barraged @PeepleForPeople with angry tweets. There's even a Change.org petition asking that Apple's App Store and the Google Play marketplace block the app.

Author and futurist Brian Solis argues that the very idea behind Peeple -- not just the way the app is set up -- is deeply flawed.

"Discovering human qualities is supposed to be part of life," Solis writes. "And how you and I live our lives, for the most part, is not expected to be gamified and recorded at every step let alone partially reassembled through random dealings and unsystematic, and imperfect reviews of those that get around to publishing them."

The Huffington Post requested an interview with the women behind the app, Julia Cordray and Nicole McCullough, but did not hear back on Twitter, Facebook or email.

Though Peeple bills itself as something entirely new, the idea of rating people online is not. We can already say positive or negative things about other people via social media, as the subjects of public shaming know well. LinkedIn, for instance, encourages its users to endorse others and write testimonials for them.

The Lulu app, which let women anonymously review men, provoked its own controversy when it launched a couple years ago. Way back in 2010, a people-rating app called Unvarnished tried to do exactly what Peeple aspires to do, and it encountered a similar reception. Unvarnished eventually became Honestly.com and closed in May 2012.

And then there's SketchFactor, an app created by two white people to tell other people how steer clear of "sketchy" neighborhoods. As with the concerns about racism which stopped SketchFactor dead in its tracks, the initial response to Peeple could set it on a road to nowheresville.

The Peeple founders responded to some of the criticism in a Facebook post on Wednesday:

Hey Visitors to our page: We hear you loud and clear. 1. You want the option to opt in or opt out.2. You don't want...

Posted by Peeple on Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The founders also shared a philosophical statement about humans: "People are genuinely good." The ways we see humans behave online today, however, show how entrepreneurs need to be careful from the very beginning about how they build digital architectures of participation.

It's inevitable that other people will keep trying to build apps that quantify the behavior or even value of others, that other people will hate them, and that the data from the ones that succeed will be used by some governments to "score" their citizens, as China already wants to do.

The DNA of services matters. Building empathy for other people is hard but necessary for review apps.